If you have any questions about the true power of language in the hands of a master wordsmith, go see the Idaho Shakespeare Festival's production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, which opened on July 16. Nary a lingering doubt will cloud your mind after a few hours spent in the company of one of the most celebrated writers in the English language in the hands of one of Boise's favorite theater company.
Actually, go see it even if you just want a good laugh and an enjoyable evening under the stars.
It's hard not to be impressed by the fact that even after more than 100 years since the play's debut in London in 1895, the sentiment still rings so true that it isn't challenging for a modern audience to get the joke. It's a testament to the fact that Wilde not only had a rare understanding of his peers, but of the very root of what drives mankind.
"I love talking about nothing," says Lord Goring (played by ISF regular David Anthony Smith), "It's the only thing I know anything about."
And while the play parodies the vapid side of society with cutting commentaries that flit lightly from the mouths of characters who abhor anything that could be confused with education, it also exposes the dark, greedy side of humanity lying just below the public niceties.
But words alone aren't enough to do credit to a play that works on so many levels. The play could easily have fallen fall flat. But thanks to the talented cast and the guidance of director Sari Ketter, the audience was brought into each layer of Wilde's world with ease.
The premise of the play revolves around the consequences of a bad choice, which with time, has grown into a dark secret ripe to be manipulated by the unscrupulous.
Sir Robert Chiltern (Richard Klautsch) is wildly known and respected as an upright, honest political leader. But when a mysterious lady, Mrs. Cheveley (Laura Perrotta), returns to England after years of living abroad, she threatens to expose the unsavory catalyst for Sir Robert's success if he does not throw his support behind a shady scheme to build a canal in Argentina.
Sir Robert must choose how to save his honor, while trying to hide the nasty truth from his highly moral wife, played by Jodi Dominick. Sir Robert's friend, Lord Goring, gets pulled into the fray, and eventually becomes the target of his own blackmail attempt by Lady Cheveley—his ever-so-brief former fiance—when she says she'll clear Sir Robert if Lord Goring agrees to marry her.
This production started off rather slowly, and left the audience feeling a bit disjointed as the plot was set up amid a multitude of characters. But the story built incrementally with each act until it hit its stride in the third. At that point, the cast clicked with the material, allowing the audience to get pulled to the highs of the witty jokes and share the lows of a man who's facing his worst nightmare.
Klautsch provided wonderful grounding for the entire production while the rest of the characters fluttered about in a world where silliness is a virtue and a profitable marriage the most important long-term goal. Without Klautsch's leveling presence, the play could have gone awry at the drop of a hat, spiraling off into nothing more than a period rom-com.
Smith managed to straddle both the serious and the absurdly light with an impressively graceful ease. He was able to shift from being a narcissistic society dandy to a concerned friend, fully aware of the gravity of the situation, with a slight adjustment of expression. Not to say that he didn't provide the comic relief—Smith pulled in the biggest laughs of the night with mix of great material and optimal timing.
In classic ISF style, the set was simple, yet effective: a series of short risers clad in pastel hues of pinks and light blue-greens gave depth to the stage while roughly half a dozen chairs and a scattering of side tables served as the only set dressing.
Scene changes were made part of the evening's entertainment, carried out by a battalion of butlers in brass-buttoned tailcoats, who reset the chairs as if they were performing some sort of military-inspired dance. As the performance moved forward, the stern-faced servants began to take on their own personalities with the addition of just a touch of slapstick, much to the delight of the audience.
Elegant costuming by Jason Resler enhanced the feeling of period richness—despite the sparse stage—thanks to the use of rich fabric from linen to velvet, intricate details and perfect tailoring. His color palate played off the set, using plenty of light blues, greens and grays, while placing the villain of the piece in deep, rich mulberry and purples.
Thanks to the combined talents of the cast and crew, the audience easily became members of a deceivingly complex world inhabited by "beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics."
An Ideal Husband runs through Friday, Aug. 27. For tickets or information, visit idahoshakespeare.org or call 208-336-9221.